As parents, we hear the word “resilience” all the time these days: “Children are resilient.” “We must help our children be resilient.” Most of us have a vague sense of what resilience means and why it is important, but few really have a handle on what, exactly, we are supposed to do to help our children be resilient. In this article, I will give you some tools for doing just that, but first the basics.
What Is Resilience?
Merriam-Webster defines resilience as “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” According to Google, resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”
Underlying both of these definitions is an assumption that (1) bad stuff inevitably happens in life and (2) we all have the capacity to handle it. In some ways, this seems pretty obvious. However, as parents we tend to worry about our children’s ability to handle the bad stuff and want to protect our children from it. To some extent, especially when our children are very young, this makes absolute sense. The problem is that we won’t be in our children’s lives forever and, even while we are, we simply can’t protect them from all the slings and arrows that life sends their way.
Given these cold, hard facts, our job as parents is to help our children learn to cope with our difficult, imperfect world so that, eventually, they can take care of themselves—emotionally, physically, financially, etc.—if not completely on their own (no one can, nor should, handle life completely on their own), then at least somewhat on their own.
Now that we’ve established what resilience is and why it is important, let’s look at how we can foster resilience in our children. I believe there are five basic steps to helping build resilience in our children: empathizing, making meaning, problem solving, tolerating uncertainty, and modeling resilience.
When your child is struggling, or when something negative has happened to him or her, the first thing the child needs to know is that you understand his or her feelings. Rather than, “Oh, my god, that’s terrible! What are we going to do?” it is more helpful to say something like, “That sounds really painful/difficult/scary.” Even if your child did something wrong or made a mistake, he or she needs your empathy, at least at first. To say you empathize with your child does not necessarily mean you condone his or her behavior, but before you discuss the behavior, it can really help if you say something like, “It feels horrible to hurt a friend’s feelings,” or, “You seem furious at Jane.” In validating your child’s feelings, you are letting him or her know that you accept and can handle his/her feelings, that the feelings are not too upsetting, scary, or infuriating for you. Your child will eventually internalize this message—whatever I feel has validity—which will help build self-esteem and emotional resilience.
2. Meaning Making
If/when your child is able to discuss the situation further, going over what happened and helping your child make sense of it will help him or her feel less frightened, upset, and/or overwhelmed. Making meaning of what happened and why also gives your child a better understanding of the world and some sense of control. Sometimes how we do this is pretty straightforward, such as, “It sounds like it was slippery and you were running too fast and that’s why you fell,” or, “Do you think maybe you didn’t study enough for the test and that’s why you did badly?” Other times, it may require a more subtle approach, such as, “I wonder why Sam was so mad at you?” How you help your child make meaning will obviously depend on the situation and the age of your child. In general, though, the more questions you ask and the fewer answers or opinions you give, the better. When children feel that they are in charge of making sense of their world, the more in control and confident they feel, which only adds to their resilience.
3. Problem Solving
One of the “benefits” of difficult situations is that they give us an opportunity to learn from our mistakes or, even if we didn’t make a mistake, learn what we might do differently in the future. This is no easy task. One of our jobs as parents, therefore, is to teach our children how to learn from their mistakes and to handle the difficult situations they may encounter. Sometimes this involves little more than conveying information, such as, “Ice is slippery. If you run on an icy sidewalk, you will probably fall.” More often than not, however, what our children need to learn is the process by which a good decision gets made or a thorny problem solved. Some basic techniques that you can use to teach your child how to problem solve are brainstorming, role playing, and speculating.
For example, let’s say your daughter complains that her friend was very mean to her, and let’s say that after you have empathized with your daughter and helped her make sense of what happened, she asks you to help her figure out what to do. Although it will probably be tempting to give advice or state your opinion—”If she’s going to treat you like that, there’s no point in you being friends with her!”—your daughter is going to benefit a lot more if you help her problem-solve the situation. One way to do this is to brainstorm her options with her—stop spending time with her friend, be more guarded with her friend, confront her friend in person, call her, etc. After you and your daughter have come up with a few ideas, you might role play the ideas to see how they feel and how they turn out (some kids find role plays very helpful) or have a discussion around what each option might feel like: “What would it feel like if you said/did this?” “What do you think her response would be if you did that?”
4. Tolerating Uncertainty
Sometimes things happen that are completely out of your child’s control and that no amount of problem solving will fix. Illness, death, and natural disasters are but a few examples. In these instances, empathizing (“It is scary not knowing what’s going to happen”) and making meaning (“Sometimes things happen that we can’t control”) with your child are important in terms of helping your child feel less scared and alone. Also, by sticking with your child’s feelings, whatever they may be, and sticking with the truth about life’s uncertainty, you give your child the message that, as scary and uncertain as life can be, you are confident that he or she can tolerate not knowing sometimes.
Of course, whenever possible, it is helpful to reassure your child that (certain) bad things happen very rarely or that it is unlikely that they will happen to him or her—”Aunt Mary has an illness that only adults get”—or that there is hope even amidst the uncertainty: “The doctors are doing everything they can to help her get better.” Obviously, the more your child can feel safe and hopeful, the better.
5. Modeling Resilience
One of the hardest parts about helping our children develop resilience is that we don’t always feel so resilient ourselves. Developing an awareness of our own feelings around difficulty, failure, loss, and uncertainty is therefore very important. You might want to ask yourself: when I struggle with something or make a mistake, how do I feel about myself? How well am I able to work through or problem-solve a tough situation? How well do I tolerate uncertainty and loss? How confident am I in my ability to handle life’s misfortunes? If you are able to feel somewhat confident about at least some of the areas above (hey, no one ever feels completely self-accepting or anxiety-free), then you are modeling resilience for your child in a very powerful way.
Fortunately, even if we don’t feel so resilient all the time, having an awareness of our own vulnerabilities and insecurities can help us deal with our child’s. For example, in the situation where the friend is mean to your daughter, you may find yourself feeling very anxious: “Oh, my poor baby, this is going to be devastating to her!” “What if my daughter doesn’t know how to keep friends?” In these moments, it is helpful to stop and ask yourself, “Why am I feeling so worried? Who is my anxiety really about—me or her?” Much of the time, our own insecurities and past experiences color our perception of our children’s experience. To the degree to which we can, it really helps if we put aside our own experiences and self-doubts and focus on our child’s feelings and experience.
Temperament and Resilience
Although all children have the capacity for resilience, it seems that some children struggle more than others with life’s stressors. For example, there are children who are especially hard on themselves, children who are particularly sensitive to changes in their environment, children for whom uncertainty is extremely anxiety-producing, etc. However, although they may struggle more than other children in some areas, in the process of struggling, these children often develop greater self-awareness (about their needs, their limitations, their strengths, etc.) and an even larger toolbox of problem-solving skills, all of which greatly serves them as they go through life.
All children have the capacity for resilience. Our job as parents is “simply” to nurture this innate capacity. Following the above steps of empathizing, making meaning, problem solving, tolerating uncertainty, and modeling resilience, you can achieve just this. Even if you miss a step or two, if you are able more often than not to convey an attitude of acceptance (that life can be difficult and uncertain) and confidence (that he or she can handle life’s difficulties and uncertainties) to your child, you will be going a long way toward helping your child build resilience and succeed in life.
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